Film review by: Witney Seibold
Quentin Tarantino’s new WWII epic is disrespectful, reductionist, immature, an adolescent power fantasy, and probably one of the best films of the year. Tarantino is notorious for elevating his style to such a delirious height that becomes the substance of the film itself. Tarantino does not make films that take place in reality, but in a heightened, forcefully artificial, boldly cinematic place where characters are the most powerful of archetypes, and melodramatic events unfold in a way that is only natural to fans of genre cinema. Most of his previous films have taken place in a skuzzy noir world of crime and killers. “Inglourious Basterds” takes place not during WWII, but inside a John Ford WWII film. That is intentionally does not cleave closely to actual history is disrespectful to those who actually went through the war, but possibly the single ballsiest thing a filmmaker can do.
What sis our heroes do? Well, if real American soldiers had actually committed some of the acts in “Inglourious Basterds,” our history books would have remembered it.
Our players: Christoph Waltz plays a dandyish, intelligent, and fiercely cruel Nazi general named Hans Landa. In the film’s opening scenes, we se him calmly drinking milk, and manipulating an innocent French dairy farmer into revealing the location of some hidden French Jews. Each time Waltz appears, he is all smiles and charm, and we feel cold chills go up our spine. That he is flamboyant and cheerful pretty much all the time, and still manages to make us feel fear is a credit to his performance. It’s probably one of the best of the year. Landa will spend much of the film tracking down a girl he saw escape from the French diary farm.
Brad Pitt plays Aldo Raine, a Tennessee bootlegger-turned-army-general who has assembled an elite teams of Jewish soldiers with the intent purpose of killing as many Nazis as possible. They are a gloriously crass bunch of violent hoodlums. One of them (genre director Eli Roth) prefers to beats Nazis to death with a Louisville Slugger, and the entire team bothers to scalp each of their victims, occasionally carving swastikas on the foreheads of their survivors. If this bunch were Nazis themselves, audiences would easily see them as villains. But since “Nazi” has become so synonymous with “evil,” seeing our group of Jewish soldiers, in the year 2009, mutilating Nazis, it’s almost like a direct for of wish fulfillment. Why not show the oppressed Jews dishing out some backwater revenge?
Eventually these inglorious bastards, with the help of a British operative (Michael Fassbender) and a German movie star (the lovely Diane Kreuger) conceive of a plan to blow up a movie theater where several important Nazis will be in attendance.
Mélanie Laurent plays Shoshanna Dreyfus, the Jewish girl who escaped from Landa at the beginning of the film, and is now hiding in plain sight in Paris, operating a repertory movie theater. Her theater is chosen to play host to a film festival, where a pro-Nazi military drama will be shown. The said film’s star is also the soldier on whose life it is based. Dreyfus, understanding that certain Nazis will be in her theaters, including Landa, has conceived of a plan to kill them all in a fire. As all good cinephiles know, nitrate film stock is incredibly flammable. If you didn’t know, Tarantino provides a helpful voiceover by a recognizable actor.
Film stock taking down the Nazi party? Film luring them to their deaths? A showdown in a movie theater? A movie star helping the resistance? Tarantino is using the very physical mechanics of film to take down the Nazi party. It’s not just a romantic fantasy of retroactive wartime revenge, but cinematically self-reflexive on a new level. Not since Udo Kier killed himself by feeding his own innards into a film projector in John Carpenter’s “Cigarette Burns” has the concept of powerful cinematic death been taken to such a dizzying height.
What’s more, “Inglourious Basterds” is tense, action packed, and incredibly entertaining to boot. It’s a joy to watch actors chatting in that Tarantino patois that only he can do, even if they’re not saying anything of significance, or advancing any story. There is a scene in a bar where several undercover Brits and Americans are trying to be civil to a Nazi general who has sat at their table, and the subtle verbal chess game is as good as anything Tarantino has done.
The title is ripped on from an Italian “Dirty Dozen” ripoff; this film is by no means a remake, but yet another jazz-like riff on the war picture. Much of the music is taken from other films, notably those scored by Ennio Morricone. The more you know about movies, the more you like a Tarantino picture. Even if you don’t know, they are great.